Sunday, June 17, 2012

Remembering my father, Milton Eisenberg

Today is the first Father's Day since my father, Milton Eisenberg, passed away -- about 10 years after he was first diagnosed with cancer.  The dignity of my father's own fight with cancer has been an important example for me over these past months.  

A few years before he died, at the suggestion of his wife, my father took the opportunity to write down some reflections on his life, lessons learned, and his perspective on the miracle of life.  His wife, Su, shared those reflections at the memorial service for my father.   On this Father's Day, and in appreciation for the lessons he shared with us, I've repeated them his own words.

ME Eulogy Notes For Su Kim
Dear family and friends, thank you for being here today.

I asked my husband to help me write his eulogy when I still had reason to hope that his end might be some time away.  I wanted him to look back on his life while his mind was clear and he was in a happy state.  He said this was good thinking, and agreed to put some of his thoughts on paper for me to share with you today.  This is what he wrote:

“Human existence is a puzzle. We are born helpless.  If we have a normal life, we mature into self-sufficient beings with remarkable bodies and minds able to accommodate almost every sort of physical, intellectual, moral and emotional challenge.  As we grow old, we become helpless again and need the same kind of support as when we were children.  Then, inevitably, we die. 

“As intelligent beings, we cannot avoid speculating about what dying means, especially when we are asked to help compose our own eulogy.  The question we ask is the same one that has perplexed mankind for all of its existence:  Is death an annihilation or do we have souls--independent spirits--that live on long after the body has decayed?

“I used to believe that death brought with it the Day of Judgment when God decided who among us would enter Paradise.  I had only the vaguest concept of what Paradise might be like and was keenly aware that modern science contradicted any notion of an eternal disembodied spirit.  Nevertheless, I was convinced that at the end of our lives on earth, a just and demanding God would be obliged to reward virtue and punish evil.  Later, when I learned something about Buddhism’s belief in reincarnation, I began to think that the choice confronting us was not between Heaven and Hell, but between Nirvana and a renewed experience of birth, old age and death. 

            “My belief in a Day of Judgment gave me more concern than comfort since I had reason to doubt at the time that I would be among those fortunate enough to be chosen for Paradise or Nirvana.  I remember thinking that to have any chance of redemption, I would have to do something so noble before I died that even God would notice. I prayed that God would give me a long life so I could make amends for my many shortcomings.

"My concerns changed after I met Su.  I began to focus much more on the mystery and wonder of my life in the here-and-now and less on what would happen to me in the hereinafter.  The miracle of life on Earth became more important to me than speculations about the possibility of an after-life or another life. 
“We exist as tiny specks on a planet suspended in the cosmos as part of a vast solar system kept more or less in place by forces we can measure but cannot see.  Most scientists tell us that the world began with a big bang and that our Earth evolved during a multi-billion year process of adaptation into the diverse, intricate, precarious, and extraordinary place we inhabit.  Others believe it began about 6000 years ago and was completed by Almighty God is just 6 days.  Between these extremes are a multitude of beliefs too numerous even to catalogue.

“Whatever the case, I began to focus less on what would happen to me after I die and more on how I came to exist at all.  I realized that the whole idea of human existence was miraculous and that we must all be eternally grateful to whatever or whoever allows us to dwell in this earthly Paradise for whatever span of years we are given.  Personally, I have no hesitation in thanking God for this privilege, whether or not He also has endowed us with immortal souls or unending cycles of life.

“Every life, of course, is unique.  I know that I would not count my life as such a blessing if I didn’t have Su to share these last years with me.  I lived through two failed marriages before I met Su, which may be one of the reasons I appreciated her so much.  I do not blame anyone but myself for what went wrong since, as I confessed to Su many times, it took me a long time to grow up.  My effort to be worthy of her made me a better person.  Su gave me the chance I needed to redeem myself in this world, not the next.

“The Rabbis, and other religious leaders, like to say that God wants us to suffer to ennoble our character.  There may be some truth to this.  We know that Beethoven wrote the Ninth Symphony and other great works when he was totally deaf.  It is hard to imagine a more devastating ailment for a musical genius.  We know that Van Gogh, suffered all his life from depression and maybe that is what we see in much of his art.  It may even have been the spark that made his work unique.

“Personally, I think the Beethovens and Van Goghs are exceptions.  For most people, suffering is embittering, not uplifting.  It saps our strength and our will.  It diverts us from constructive endeavors.  In my own experience, a life that enjoys a share of this world’s blessings is much more likely to be fulfilling than a life tormented by pain. 

“Fortunately, I was blessed with good parents who did their best to spare me from hardship.  They were immigrants from Russia, which they fled to escape the Cossacks and pogroms.  They were hard working and proud to be Americans and did their best to help me make the most of my life in their adopted land.  I was doubly blessed because I also had a stepfather who embraced me as warmly as could have any blood relation.  A parent’s love is precious, but is love based on blood ties and tinged with the vicarious pleasure that comes from the success of one’s offspring.  Maybe that is why I appreciated my stepfather’s love even more than my mother’s or my father’s.  If it is possible, I know he is still caring for my mother and looking out for me.

“My stepfather, despite his own limited education, made sure that I would get a good education at a fine university and law school.  I was a good student and had many wonderful teachers; one in particular named Milton Konvitz who I admired above all.  My education helped me to a successful career.  One of my earliest mentors was Judge John Danaher, a kind and thoughtful man who taught me that accomplishing anything worthwhile required hard work and dedication.  As a federal prosecutor under Leo Rover and Oliver Gasch, I learned that however much we are taught to love the sinner, there are truly evil people among us who must be separated from the mostly good people who inhabit the earth. As Minority Counsel of the House Committee on the Judiciary and then as Administrative Assistant and Counsel to Senator Keating, I had an opportunity to work on the civil rights legislation that did so much to remove the legal barriers to full citizenship for black-Americans.  I worked in the Senate while Barry Goldwater, who commanded my Air Force Reserve Unit, Lyndon Johnson and John Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey and many other well-known figures were serving in that body.  I respected and admired most of them, but this experience taught me that the most popular people are not always the most admirable and that even the most esteemed of our Nation’s leaders are not much different from the rest of us.  Finally, as a trial lawyer with Fried Frank, a large and successful law firm, I learned that because of my education and experience I could hold my own in the company of some of the best lawyers in America.

“It was a very satisfying career and allowed me to live a life beyond any wish I had for myself.  And I know it would not have been possible if my stepfather and my parents had not given me the support and encouragement I needed.   

“After I married Su, I became a stepfather to her children Omar, Princess and Dominique.  I tried to honor the example of my stepfather by embracing them as he had embraced me.  There were difficult times, which only made me appreciate my stepfather even more, but I hope they and my own children know that I wanted the best for them always.  My daughter Beth and my sons Justin, Jon, David, and Seth have given me many wonderful grandchildren.  Su sees my reflection in several of my grandchildren, particularly Brian Patrick, Justin and Michelle’s youngest.  While I don’t know if my soul will live on, I have no doubt that some of my genes will survive in them and I pray that it will be only the good ones. 

“All our children are good human beings, the highest praise I can give them.  The advice I give them is to treasure every day of your existence and to do your best at every task you face.  I do not believe in living life to the fullest in the sense in which that expression is often used.  More important when you look back on your life are the unselfish things you have done, the love and support you have given to others, and the sense that you have made the most of your talents and opportunities. I have learned that growing up is the work of a lifetime and that we should strive to continue growing until the end of our days. 

“I know that when my life draws to a close I will be sorry to say goodbye to our children and grandchildren, to the adventures that await future generations, to Verdi's and Puccini's operas, to Beethoven's and Mozart's symphonies, to Shakespeare's plays and Whitman's poetry, to Michelangelo's and C├ęzanne’s masterpieces, to Dickens' and Fitzgerald's and Tom Wolf's novels, to revising my own never to be published novel, and to the good movies Hollywood occasionally produces.  I will miss the everyday things like reading the newspaper in the morning while drinking my first cup of coffee on our balcony, the sight of the dogwoods and azaleas coming into bloom every Spring, the view of the Potomac River from our breakfast table, the awesome display of every shade of nature’s colors before the leaves gently fall to the ground, and the occasional blanket of snow that covers the city and the silence it brings with it.  Most of all, I will miss my Su Kim who has done so much to ennoble my life and to bring joy to every day we have been together.  If there is a heaven or a Blissful Pure Land, I cannot think of anyone I would like more as a companion for all eternity.

  “Yes, I am sorry to be leaving this world and the pleasures and rewards it has given me.  I do not leave it mournfully, however, for that would be showing ingratitude for my time on Earth.  In truth, I feel blessed to have been chosen from among all of Creation to live in mind and body as a human and in the best of all nations, the United States of America.  It is life, not death, that I regard as the greater miracle and I say thank you God for allowing me to be part of this world.  

“Goodbye and may a loving God bless you always.”

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Day After....Post-Op

Two weeks ago today I was at Brigham and Women's Hospital.  It was the day after my surgery for bladder cancer.  Over the prior several months, throughout my chemotherapy and, especially over the prior several days, it was the day that I had been waiting for -- the day after.   It was the day for me to begin to focus on recovery.   I could put my fears & anxiety about the surgery behind me (I was still here!), and there was no additional chemotherapy in the plan.  Unlike the prior few months, the remaining challenge was relatively concrete -- heal, rebuild my strength, and work towards getting back to my life.  Yes, there was uncertainty about cancer, and whether we were finally ahead of it.  But, on the morning after the surgery, I was looking forward.  I was happy to be alive....still am!

Benji posted a brief update, on my behalf, when I came out of surgery safely.  Since then, I've thought about writing several times, especially since last Monday, when I got home from the hospital.  Of course, thinking about writing, and having the focus and energy to write are two different things.  This afternoon has been good, more energy than the past few days.  A good time for an update!

First, some of the important (and good!) details:

  • the surgery went well.   I was in the OR for about six hours, and came through healthy enough to go straight to a regular room, instead of intensive care.   My surgeon described the surgery, with the expected complications, as "text book".
  • the key decision, the choice between a "neo-bladder" (internal) and a urostomy (external), was made by the surgeon during surgery.  In a key area, there was not enough salvageable tissue for the neo-bladder, so we went with the urostomy.  As I've written before, that was something of a relief for me.  The urostomy will take some getting used to but, for me, it beats having a lot of complications from a neo-bladder.
  • And, the best news came last Friday morning, about 10 days after the surgery ... all of the biopsies taken during the surgery came back negative!   This confirms what we saw in the last MRI, that there is no sign the cancer spread beyond my bladder.  There are no guarantees with cancer, but that was wonderful news.  I'll be monitored closely, but this news makes it that much easier to focus on healing, and the future.
To all of you who have been thinking of me, praying for me, and, in so many ways, helping care for me these past months, you've carried me a long way - the chemo and surgery are done, and the biopsy results are as encouraging as I could ask for.   Thank you!!

May 28, Checking Out!
My six days at Brigham & Women's went well.  I was in the urology ward, where the nurses, care assistants, doctors, and others were all very attuned to my needs.  My big surprise was coming to fully realize how extensive a surgery this was.  I'd been referring to it, and thinking of it, as a bladder surgery.  No small task, but contained.  Of course, I thought of it that way even as I described it as including removing a section of my intestines and building a replacement (internal or external) for the bladder.  A few of the staff on the urology floor described it to me as the most extensive urological surgery that they do.  For me, the truly unappreciated part was that this was intestinal surgery too -- and that it would take a bit to get my intestines working properly again.  Somehow I thought I'd mostly be focused on the incision healing, and the wound around the urostomy.  I've since learned better.  In any case, with me up and walking every day, and some signs that my digestive system was beginning to work again, they let me know on day #5 that I would be discharged on day #6, May 28th.  I appreciated that day's notice, as I took the news with mixed emotions -- it is still the early days of my recovery, and there was a lot of comfort in depth of care at the hospital.  Being home, even with the care of family and friends and regular visits from home health care, would be an adjustment.   

I've been home since May 28th.   Seems a long time, though I haven't quite settled into a new routine yet.  The advice from one of the home health nurses was pretty straightforward -- focus on rest, then hydration/diet, and exercise, in that order.  I'm doing well on rest!   Some days, even little things (e.g., a shower) can take a lot of energy, and leave me ready for a nap.  On days with warm weather, I've been good about getting out for short walks (emphasis on short!).  Short visits are energizing!  Still not eating much, until the digestive system settles down -- I expected pain/discomfort from the wounds that are healing, definitely didn't anticipate that it could be trumped by digesting food!  So, I've mostly been on a liquid diet, though I've tried a few more solid foods.  I'm trying to take it easy, and focus on the adjustment to my new parts (I keep a few spares around), healing, hydration, starting to expand my diet, and, as the weather improves, getting back out for those walks.   No need to focus on all those things at once, or without an occasional nap in between!

Perhaps the hardest thing is not the healing, but the missed moments -- Josh graduated from Prozdor (the Jewish high school supplement at Hebrew College) this past Sunday, Benji graduated from McGill, in Montreal, on Tuesday, and Sara comes home from six months in Israel this Saturday evening.  I missed the ceremonies (unless you count text messages) for Josh and Benji, and probably won't be at the airport to greet Sara's flight.  Shucks!    On the other hand, the whole family (Fran, Adam, Benji, Sara, Josh & me!) will all be here on Sunday.  Considering all that's transpired over the past few months, that is a bit like having Thanksgiving come early this year!

It is good to be home.